I was recently listening to a sermon on Galatians, and the following statement by Paul caught my eye:
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. (2:19)
This got me thinking that the law might have a more important role in salvation history than I had previously considered. To see what I mean, consider the ways that the law is related to sin. First, the law teaches us about sin, helping us to understand it for what it is. Second, the law condemns sin as disobedience against God. We see both of these, for instance, in what Paul says elsewhere:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:19–20)
This statement from Galatians suggested to me that we should consider adding a third item to this list: what if the law also provides the means by which sin and death could be escaped? I don’t mean this in the sense that by living under the law we could somehow escape sin and death — we know that this is only possible through Christ. What I’m suggesting is that the law provided the mechanism that Christ leveraged in order to rescue us from sin and death.
The law as a means of escape from sin
In order to see how this works, we need to briefly remind ourselves of the story of sin, death, and the law. This is most clearly unpacked in Romans 5–7, but it also underlies the much shorter treatment in Galatians 3. In Romans 5, Paul introduces the story like this:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom 5:12–14)
As he begins comparing Adam and Jesus, Paul interrupts himself to make sure we’re all on the same page. “Sin was in the world, you understand, long before the law was given, but it not was reckoned to anyone before there was a law. And yet, even though people were not sinning in ways reckoned by a law (as with Adam, who had been given an explicit command) they were nevertheless dying.” Sin and death reign even though sin is not being counted by the law, which is a huge problem. Counted or not, sin is contrary to God’s created order — it corrupts us and goes against our flourishing (Rom 3:23), and it produces death in us (Rom 2:12–16). But without some kind of reckoning, this corruption is nebulous and intractable: it’s not a “thing” that we can contain (or count), but just an indiscernible corrosive power within God’s good creation. How do you begin to address sin when it’s concealed like this? How could you forgive it without it first being reckoned? How do you cleanse it without it first being counted?
You can’t. Using different imagery, without some reckoning sin was free to roam around in the darkness and wreak devastation without any way to handle it. So, God introduced a law that covered all of sin, rather than just the single command given to Adam. How does this help? Paul gives us two answers, one in Romans and one in Galatians. In Romans, he notes that a law is escapable through death:
Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom 7:1–3)
And as he had argued earlier, we who trust in Christ have died with him (Rom 6:1–14), and are therefore released from the law:
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Rom 7:4–6)
So, before the law sin was an intractable corruption, but once sin is covered by a law we have a means by which to escape it, namely death. Put another way, before the law death was just a consequence of sin, but with the law it becomes the means of escaping it. Of course, it’s not a means for us to take hold of ourselves. Instead, the law makes Christ’s death, in which we share, capable of releasing us from sin.
In Galatians, Paul uses the notion of a curse to explain the same thing. On this account, the law curses anyone who does not obey it, and Christ became a curse for us so that we might be redeemed from the law, and the sin that it condemned:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:10–14)
So, the law curses our sinfulness, allowing Christ to become a curse for us and thereby redeem us.
In both cases, then, we might say that the law introduces the “middle term” that connects our sin to Christ’s redeeming work, such that that which was nebulous and inescapable becomes concrete and escapable — granted, of course, that we have Christ to achieve this escape for us. The law circumscribes sin and provides the means of escaping it, so that through the law I may die to the law and thereby escape sin. Again, we must underscore the fact that this is not achieved by me directly, but in my sharing in Christ’s death. The law does not provide a means by which I can release myself from sin, but a means by which Christ can redeem me and secure my escape from sin.
Comparing this to some other things Paul says
Having outlined this third relationship between sin and the law, it would be good to comment briefly on two other things Paul has to say, one in Romans and one in Galatians.
In Romans, Paul says that sin produces death in us through the law (7:13), but I’ve said that death was a consequence of sin before the law. Well, in fact it is not I who said this, but Paul himself. He is clear that even without the law we will die and be judged (Rom 2:12–16), and that before there was a law to count it people died because of their sin (5:12–14). Paul’s statement in Rom 7:13 appears in the context of a train of thought that began earlier with these words:
… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom 7:7)
Even though sin can produce death in us without the law, it is only that sin that can be known as such from creation (Rom 1:18–32). There will be other sin that cannot be known in this way — Paul uses the example of coveting — so that when the law comes and condemns all sin it includes these sins as well. It seems that in Rom 7 Paul is talking with reference to these, or at least with reference to the increased responsibility that comes with the disclosure of the law.
Turning to Galatians, Paul says that the law “was added because of transgressions” (Gal 3:19), and then goes on to say the following:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal 3:23–26)
Now, I think these statements can be coherently interpreted in terms of the first two ways the law relates to sin (making it known, and condemning it), but the third way we’ve considered in this post develops this picture nicely. As we’ve been saying, the law was added in order to circumscribe sin in anticipation of the day when Christ would come and open up the way to escape it through his death under the law.